Why Should Mike Pompeo Talk to the Palestinians?

Mahmoud Abbas
Mahmoud Abbas / Getty Images
• May 3, 2018 4:50 pm


Mike Pompeo is not off to a good start as the nation's top diplomat, according to the New York Times. The paper published a story lamenting how the newly minted secretary of state "did not meet a single Palestinian representative and mentioned them publicly once" during a trip to Israel earlier this week. Reporters Gardiner Harris and Isabel Kershner concluded their story by noting that, on Monday, the Palestinian legislative body was scheduled to hold its first formal meeting in nine years. "If Mr. Pompeo had a strategy to bridge the divide," they added in a tone more appropriate for the op-ed section, "he could hardly have picked a better moment to address the movement's leadership. Instead, he will fly home Monday after seeing King Abdullah [of Jordan]."

The Times is right: Pompeo ignored an opportunity to work with an eager and open-minded Palestinian leadership to "bridge the divide" with Israel. Had Pompeo attended the meeting, he could have heard in person Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas deliver speech in which he tried to prove there is no Jewish connection to the land of Israel and peddled just about every anti-Semitic conspiracy theory out there.

European Jews, according to Abbas, were massacred for centuries until the Holocaust not because they were Jews, but because of their "function in society, which had to do with usury, banks, and so on." In other words, Jews were to blame for their own slaughter because of how they lent money, rather than the hatred and anti-Semitism of those persecuting them. The Palestinian leader also claimed, in front of hundreds of delegates, that Adolf Hitler facilitated the emigration of European Jews to what was then the British Mandate of Palestine by striking a deal with the Anglo-Palestine Bank in Jerusalem. "So their narrative about coming to this country because of their longing for Zion, or whatever—we're tired of hearing this," said Abbas. "The truth is that this is a colonialist enterprise, aimed at planting a foreign body in this region."

Abbas added later that Israel was a European "colonial project that has nothing to do with Judaism." At no point did he mention the Jewish people's 3,000-year connection to the land of Israel, or that Israel is "the only place where the Jews have ever been sovereign or sought sovereignty," as the Times of Israel put it.

Abbas' comments appeared to cross the line for many voices typically sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. "Let Abbas' vile words be his last as Palestinian leader," wrote the New York Times editorial board, for example. Of course the Times did not call for Abbas to step down after he delivered a speech in December calling on countries to end their recognition of Israel, denying Jewish ties to Jerusalem, and appearing to threaten violence. Nor did the paper issue the same condemnation in prior years when Abbas made hateful statements about Jews and Israel, or because of the Palestinian Authority's longstanding policy of paying terrorists and their families.

So: Why should Mike Pompeo talk to the Palestinians? After all, it is the Palestinians who have stubbornly refused even to consider a U.S. peace plan for a two-state solution. Abbas said as much during his speech Monday, preemptively rejecting any plan the Trump administration may propose.

Palestinian leaders cut off political contacts with the administration following President Trump's decision last year to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital. They argue the U.S. can no longer be considered an honest broker in the peace process, and refused to meet with Vice President Mike Pence when he visited the Middle East in January. "There can be no Palestinian state without the city of Jerusalem as its capital," Abbas said in December. "Moreover, there will be no peace in the region and in the world without it."

What Abbas and his allies fail to realize, or perhaps conveniently choose to ignore, is that the Trump administration has in no way closed off the possibility of Jerusalem being the capital of a future Palestinian state. "This decision is not intended, in any way, to reflect a departure from our strong commitment to facilitate a lasting peace agreement," Trump said during his Jerusalem announcement. "We are not taking a position of any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the resolution of contested borders. Those questions are up to the parties involved."

Beyond its stubbornness, the Palestinian Authority is riddled with corruption, mismanagement, and incompetence. It is hard for the PA to provide reliable governance when Abbas is serving a thirteenth year of what was supposed to be a four-year term. Moreover, the Coalition for Accountability and Integrity recently released its tenth annual report on corruption in the Palestinian Territories. As Elliott Abrams notes, the report lists a litany of areas where corruption prevails in Palestinian governance—from a judiciary that lacks independence, to prized government appointments lacking transparency and regard for the principle of equal opportunity.

All of the above is made worse by simmering tensions between the PA and Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist terrorist group in control of Gaza. Abbas has enough trouble saying he represents all Palestinians in the West Bank, let alone those in Gaza as well.

Does anyone seriously think an independent Palestinian state with such weak governance would, in the current Middle East, be able to survive without falling to radicals?

Let's learn a lesson from Barack Obama, who became the first U.S. president in decades to make no political progress toward the goal of a two-state solution. Why did Obama fail so miserably on an issue for which he set such a high bar upon entering the White House? A quote from 2009 helps provide an answer. "Look at the past eight years," Obama told Jewish leaders, according to a Washington Post report. "During those eight years, there was no space between us and Israel, and what did we get from that? When there is no daylight, Israel just sits on the sidelines, and that erodes our credibility with the Arab states."

Putting aside that Israel in 2008, when George W. Bush was still president, offered the Palestinians the most generous peace plan for which one could realistically hope (which Abbas rejected), and the fact that history easily refutes Obama's zero-sum view of Arab-Israeli relations, Obama's quote was an indicator of his plan to put "daylight" between Washington and Jerusalem, in hopes of pressuring the latter to make greater concessions to the Palestinians. It didn't work, for two reasons. First, Israel is more likely to make concessions when it feels the U.S. firmly supports it and recognizes its interests, and second, the Palestinians do not accept the existence of a Jewish state on their border. Perhaps the latter reason is why new reports say the Palestine Liberation Organization is set to adopt a resolution freezing its recognition of Israel and conditioning it on Israel recognizing a state of Palestine.

Would it be so crazy, then, for Pompeo to put pressure on the Palestinians to make some changes? How about reforming the PA's corrupt government and pushing Abbas to help alleviate the terrible humanitarian situation in Gaza, which he is only making worse and giving Hamas more of an excuse to lash out with violence. How about no longer rewarding terrorists who attack Israelis?

A grand diplomatic bargain between Israel and the Palestinians is not realistic today, but there are specific, concrete steps to take now that could make that outcome more likely in the future. Does that require Pompeo talking to the Palestinians? Yes, but not in the way the New York Times would prefer.